A true test of depth
As the halfway stage of Super Rugby approaches, dealing with mounting injuries and having sufficient player depth are issues which become more apparent.
The obvious factor that plays a key role whether sides are able to boast depth – which thereby allows for rotation – is financial muscle. Within a South African context, theoretically the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers should be able to cope best with injuries owing to the greater fiscal resources at their disposal.
However, I have been most impressed with a union like the Cheetahs. In spite of lesser funds, they have still been able to recruit well enough to offset the loss of some key players.
Take for example when Johan Goosen suffered his season-ending injury. Most pundits tipped the Cheetahs to struggle at pivot without Goosen’s influence; however Burton Francis – arguably their fourth-choice flyhalf – has done an admirable job since taking over at ten.
The emergence of loose forward Lappies Labuschagne – who was recently plying his trade in the Varsity Cup – has also quietened the calls for Juan Smith to attempt another comeback. Labuschagne has a great feel for the game. He just looks so comfortable on the ball, which is a quality one cannot coach.
At this stage of the season, I also feel that the Kings are in a favourable position, as owing to the intensity of Super Rugby many teams will look to rest some of their key players when facing the Port Elizabeth-based side.
However, rotation is not an easy art to perfect. For example, the Blues started like a house on fire after winning their first two games. They, however, highlighted the risk of rotation when losing to the Bulls in Auckland.
At this time of the season, bodies and minds are becoming increasingly fatigued thus I do advocate rotation when applied correctly. Super Rugby is played at such a high level of intensity that it’s near-impossible and often ill-advised to field the same XV each week. Coaches tread a fine line in attempting to get the balance right.
As the southern hemisphere season invariably becomes longer, it’s only natural that a great number of youngsters will come to the fore. This is evidenced by the first Springbok training squad Heyneke Meyer has named for 2013.
It’s pleasing to see that young players such as Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Jan Serfontein and Pieter-Steph du Toit are being recognised and rewarded for their consistent showings in Super Rugby.
For me, Ebersohn stands out as the one player that has played himself into Springbok contention. He has an amazing on-field persona and thereby provides his side with so much positive energy. Moreover, he has a great work-rate and in my view is one of the Cheetahs’ most valuable assets.
Turning to the overall picture of the South African conference, what is apparent this season is that no one side is dominating, which makes for an interesting second half of the season.
In 2012, the Stormers comfortably topped the SA conference, but this year all our sides have suffered at least one defeat. From a neutral perspective, it makes Super Rugby a more entertaining and intriguing competition.
The Sharks may top the local conference, but in my view the Cheetahs are currently South Africa’s form side. They passed their first acid test by beating a highly-determined Stormers side last week and now there’s every reason to suggest that they are genuine playoff contenders.
On the back of five consecutive victories, the men from Bloemfontein head to Loftus this Saturday. In any other year this would have appeared a straight-forward win for the Bulls, but the Cheetahs are now playing with a real sense of belief.
However, as much as I would like the Cheetahs to win, I feel that this match may be a bridge too far for them. The Bulls will be hurting owing to back-to-back defeats and will be fired up to perform back on home turf.
While the set phases will be important, I believe that the turnover of possession could well prove the defining point. From statistical analysis, around a third of tries stem from turnovers. They are often created with a certain degree of illegality; therefore it will be critical that Jason Jaftha polices this area closely.
With regards to the Stormers/Sharks clash at Newlands, I believe that whichever flyhalf is best able to stamp his authority on the game, will be on the winning side.
It was Patrick Lambie’s kicking display which saw the Durban side to victory this past weekend and his battle with opposite number Gary van Aswegen will prove pivotal. The Stormers simply cannot allow Lambie to dictate play with his boot like he did against the Crusaders.
It’s still only April, but I believe this clash will be massive in shaping the outlook of the SA conference. While I agree this is a must-win match for the Stormers, they possess sufficient quality to bounce back from consecutive defeats.
Owing to sheer desperation, I’m tipping the Stormers to win this encounter. Despite their detractors, they remain a good side with sound systems in place. I’m expecting a big performance from them this Saturday.